‘Its Monotony Soon Tires the Ear’: Military Music in Rees’ Cyclopædia

Rees’ Cyclopædia, edited by Presbyterian Minister Abraham Rees, was one of many British encyclopaedic works published in the early nineteenth century. Issued serially between 1802 and 1820, the Cyclopædia ran to 45 volumes and approximately 39 million words.

Rees’ Cyclopædia contains especially useful entries on military drums and fifes, excerpted below from Volumes 12 and 14. Although the title pages for both volumes (distributed retrospectively) bear the date of 1819, these entries were in fact first issued in 1809-1810.[1]

Written as a generalist work for a lay audience, the Cyclopædia takes pains to explain details otherwise taken for granted in most contemporary sources. Especially useful are its descriptions of the construction of drums, the various duty beatings and the differently-pitched instruments used by fifers. The authors of these Cyclopaedia entries – the English mechanical engineer John Farey Junior for the ‘Drum’ entry and the musical historian and composer Charles Burney (1726-1814) for the ‘Fife’ article – clearly had no shortage of strong opinions, denouncing fife cases as ‘both useless and extravagant’ and launching into an extended tirade against the ‘monotony’ of the side (snare) drum. The Cyclopædia’s discussion of drum beatings and solos is perhaps the most enlightening and entertaining section of the entries.

Eamonn O’Keeffe
June 2016


DRUM, in the Military Art, an instrument used particularly in martial music; and in some instances to be found in modern orchestras. It is said by Le Clerc to be an oriental invention, and brought by the Arabians, or perhaps the Moors, into Spain.

The ordinary military or side-drum is made either of brass or of very thin board, turned round into a cylinder; in which form it is well secured by glue and rivets; and, further to strengthen it, is lined throughout with a strong kind of hempen cloth, or coarse Holland, cemented to its interior, so as to prevent the wood from splitting. The drum thus made will not, however, stand great heats or intense cold; nor will it in damp weather yield so full a tone as one with a brass barrel. Within each end of the barrel there is a flat wooden hoop firmly fixed, and projecting about the third of an inch beyond the brass or wood: these, which are called the batten-hoops, serve to prevent the head from being cut by the edges. The head is made of parchment cut to a circular form, about two inches each way larger than the ends of the drum-barrel: it is fastened, while moist, to a small ring of copper, or of very firm tough wood, called the flesh-hoop, so as just to exceed the size of the band. The head properly means the parchment covering of that end which is beat upon: the other end, which is covered with a coarser parchment, is called the reverse. The head and the reverse, being applied to their respective ends of the barrel; over each a hoop, of about an inch and a half broad, and about the third of an inch in thickness, is drawn, to press the parchments close over the ends of the barrel, but not to pass over the flesh-hoops. The bracing-hoops, having holes made for passing a cord alternately from one to the other, backwards and forwards, are pulled down as near as possible towards each other, thereby to strain the head and reverse parchments very tight; but as the cord is subject to relax, it is necessary to have sliders of very strong buff leather, called braces, which, being pressed downwards from the head hoop, towards the reverse hoop, cause them to approach still nearer, and to tighten the two parchments to an extreme.

When in this state, the drum is said to be “braced;” when otherwise, “unbraced.” To give greater effect, and to cause that vibration which occasions a rough intonation, three pieces of thick catgut are stretched across the reverse, flat upon it, and parallel. When these, which are called “snares,” are slackened, so as not to vibrate when the head is beat upon, the drum is said to be “damped,” or “unsnared”; some, instead of slackening the snares, put a cloth between them and the reverse; whereby the sound is considerably deadened: this properly is termed “muffling;” though most persons consider that term to be appropriate only when the head is covered with crape, &c. as at funerals.

After all the foregoing preparation, the drum would have little or no sound, were it not that a round hole, about the size of a large pea, is left in the centre of that side which is nearest the body when the instrument is suspended by means of a “sling” passing over the right shoulder and under the left arm.

However simple the beats of the drum may appear, it is nevertheless by long practice only, that perfection can be attained; and then requiring both a correct ear, and a very nimble wrist. Every beat is perfectly regular in the number and division of the strokes from the two sticks; of which that held by the right hand is slightly grasped, while that in the left hand is retained in an oblique position; passing between the middle and third fingers, and being held by the two first fingers and the thumb; the two lower fingers crossing under it, and the palm being turned upwards. Such is the established precision in which the drum-majors take great pride, that if all the drummers of the British service were assembled together, they would be found to beat perfectly alike throughout what is called “the duty;” that is to say, all the beats in use; of which the following may be considered the principal:

The Rollwhich is a continued rolling sound, without the least inequality or intermission. This is produced by giving two taps with the same stick, using the different sticks alternately, each beating twice. The ordinary mode of teaching the roll is by the beat of “daddy mammy;” so called from the double taps, in which each hand, after its two taps, is raised as high as the shoulder; thus forcing the pupil to strike distinctly and leisurely. By degrees he is able to beat quicker, and, ultimately, “to roll,” in the manner above described, with such incredible celerity and evenness, as to produce a close and smooth sound.

The Swell is nothing more than the roll occasionally beat so softly as scarce to be heard; then increasing to the utmost of the performer’s strength; and again lowering so as almost to die away upon the ear: the great difficulty is to raise and to lower the sound very gradually. This beat is merely ornamental; it is usually performed in the reveillez, &c. while the fifes are silent: it is quite arbitrary, being an ad libitum performance.

The Flam is a beat made by the two sticks striking almost at the same instant on the head, but so as to be heard separately: it is used as a signal for various motions and manœuvres.

The Preparative cannot be described in letter-press; it is the ordinary signal for the firings to commence.

The General is an air, which, when performed at full length, is the signal for marching to some new ground, or to some other station: the first bar of its measure is beat as a signal for the firings to cease.

The Assemblyor Assemblezis a signal for the line to fall in; and, when beat after the generalis followed by the marchwhich is beat by each corps as it moves from its ground.

The March is almost indefinite, but is ordinarily beat in compliment to a reviewing or a passing field-marshal, general, prince of the blood, &c.; as also during salutes, when the battalion present their arms. “The Dead March” is beat with muffled drums, as already described. “The Grenadiers’ March,” and “The Lilies of France,” are complimentary marches, and in strictness, ought not to be beat but to a corps of grenadiers, or when a grenadier officer commands, or when the colours of the regiment are flying. “Slow March” is in slow, solemn time; and “Quick March” is in quick time: what are commonly called marches, and which have no particular distinguishing character, are usually performed in ordinary time [75 beats per minute]. “The Rogue’s March” is played when men, and “The Whore’s March” when women, are drummed out of a town.

The Ruffle is a short roll; perhaps of five or six second duration, beat very close and firm, decreasing a little in force just before it concludes, which it does in an abrupt and smart manner, and with a strong flam.

The Reveillez is beat early in the morning, usually at day-break, to waken the garrison; it is a medley of various airs and beats.

The Tattoo is always beat at night, at such hour as the garrison should retire to rest; it is the signal for extinguishing fires and light, except in public guard-rooms. All soldiers found abroad after the “Tattoo” is beat, are considered as trespassers against martial law. This also is a medley of airs and beats; the drums accompanying only at certain intervals.

Beat for Orders: a peculiar mixture of rolls, flams, and single taps, beat at the adjutant-general’s quarters, or office, for assembling all persons whose duty it is to receive the orders of the day. Each regiment also beats for orders, to assemble the serjeants, &c., who keep the order-books of the several companies.

The Retreat is beat every evening at sun-set, or after a corps has been dismissed to their quarters: it is often beat in rather a quick time along the front of a corps, when paraded for inspection or roll-call. This beat likewise warns corps engaged in action, or performing evolutions [manoeuvres], to retreat.

The Troop is beat before the new guards, &c. about to march off from their place of assembly, to relieve others then on duty. This, as well as the “Retreat”, is ordinarily in triple time of three crotchets or quavers; not unlike the “Waltz”, when performed rather slowly.

To Arms is a beat resorted to on all emergencies, whether owing to disturbances, fire, invasion, &c.

There is a kind of accompaniment performed on the drum, when beating to marches, and to other airs played by a fife. This is called the Drag, and is either double or single, according as the music may admit. The Single Drag is little more than a tap of the drum for each note in the air; the taps being given in exact time with the divisions of the music. This is what we commonly beat as an accompaniment to quick steps, “Rule Britannia,” &c. The Double Drag is a much fuller accompaniment, in which, for the most part, two or three taps are given for every note in each bar; or, eventually, the whole is performed in a kind of articulate roll, not to be easily described, in which the accented parts are reinforced with much strength. But to say the most of the side-drum, its monotony soon tires the ear; its rattling sound becomes oppressive, and the little variety of its beats, in general not over-well executed, adds to the fatigue of listening, and produces something worse than indifference towards its sounds. This, however, is a doctrine by no means tolerated among drum-majors, who affect to produce infinite variations from what the vulgar call the “parchment fiddle”They have a long train of “single reveillez,” &c. which are intended to be performed without the fife, and are considered as concertantes among the sages in this branch of music: many pride themselves on the number of those solos, which, possibly, may have charms for their ears, though failing to fascinate ours. When we speak of the drum as a musical instrument, we must, at all events, exempt the side, or military drum; which was most quaintly and ludicrously described by an American, the author of “Yankee Doodle;”, who, in detailing the gay appearance of the first regiments which were sent to suppress the insurrection [the American Revolution], states:

They have got little barrels,
The heads be kiver’d wi’ leather;
They beats upon ‘em wi’ little clubs,
To call their folk together.”

The Bass Drumor Turkish Drumis an instrument of the same construction as the side-drum above described; only it is on a very large scale, has no snares, is slung by the middle across the performer’s body, and is beat upon at both ends; the right hand being furnished with a large stick, having a knob at its end; the left being provided either with a whisk or stick, whose knob is covered with buff leather, to soften the tone. The right hand beats the accented parts of the measure, the left filling up the time according to the performer’s judgment. This instrument is of great service in military bands, giving a marked emphasis and a fine effect to the music, and proving an admirable guide to the corps while marching, so as to make them preserve a correct and regular pace.


FIFE, a small shrill flute, blown at the side, like a German flute. It is in almost every musical band; and, as the tabor and pipe enliven the dance, the fife and drum animate the soldier, particularly in the quick step. […]

The fife is an instrument particularly intended for the use of regiments; and forms, in conjunction with the drum, the only music with which many corps are provided. This little shrill tube is usually about fourteen inches in length, and of one piece, though some are made to take to pieces; but such are not suited to military use. It may be considered as a small kind of flute, especially if provided, as some are, with a key; but such are rare, the generality being confined to only six finger-holes, and an embouchure, or mouth-hole. The want of a key necessarily occasions a difference in the fingering of many notes; but the compass, or extent, is about the same as that of the old German flute; namely, from D below the treble staff to D in alt; but all beyond B in alt are more or less harsh, and cruelly piercing to a sensible ear. Fifes are made of three several sizes, denominated A, B, and C, respectively; A being the largest and deepest toned, and one minor third below concert-pitch. The next size is made to correspond with the Bb of the musical scale, and is generally used when playing with such military bands as use what are called Bb clarionets. The C fifes are those at concert-pitch, and are chiefly used for the ordinary service of these instruments. Such an assortment requires some vehicle or receptacle; accordingly we find that where such a diversity is allowed, each fifer is provided with a:

FIFE-case, which is a tin tube, about twenty inches long, and three in diameter, having two diaphragms of tin pierced for the several fifes to pass through, so as to be kept separate. There is a tin lid which fastens down, and either locks or is fixed by a spring pin. This case is generally painted to conform with the ornaments on the drums of the regiment, and is slung over the shoulder by means of a cord with tassels. Though certainly decorative, we cannot but view this appendage as both useless and extravagant.


These transcriptions © Eamonn O’Keeffe 2016


[1] For the dating of the various parts, see Rees’s Manufacturing Industry (1819-20), ed. N. Cossons (5 vols, Newton Abbot, 1972), i, p.xi.